When it comes to Russian history, the first names that usually come to mind are Lenin, Trotsky. Stalin and Khrushchev. Lenin, the controversial revolutionary who forged a communist superpower. Trotsky, the intellectual pivot of the revolution, who was assassinated and became a martyr to the cause. Stalin, the paranoid tyrant who terrorized his own people but helped defeat Hitler. Khrushchev, the brazen Cold Warrior who nearly helped herald the end of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria was a Georgian like Stalin, who called him "my heavenly". Involved in revolutionary activities since his youth and chief of the secret police in Georgia in his twenties, he oversaw the ruthless purges of the region in the 1930s and arrived in Moscow in 1938 as deputy to Nikolai Yezhov, the “bloodthirsty dwarf”, of the Soviet secret police. He soon succeeded Yezhov, who was shot on Stalin's orders, apparently at Beria's prompting. Beria, who later headed the Soviet network of forced labor camps, was notorious for his sadistic lust for torture and his penchant for beating and raping women and injuring young girls. Bald and bespectacled, he was one of the most hated men in the country at the time of Stalin's death in 1953.
A young Lavrentiy Beria.
Who was Lavrenti Beria? To put it very simply, he was a bad person in almost every way imaginable. As one of Stalin's finest enforcers, he helped orchestrate some of the bloodiest excesses of those dark ages. And he was absolutely not ashamed of his mission. "Anyone who tries to raise a hand against the will of our people, against the will of the party of Lenin and Stalin, will be ruthlessly crushed and destroyed," he once swore.
“The gulags existed before Beria, but he was the one who set them up on a large scale. He industrialized the Gulag system. Human life had no value for him.” Former prisoner Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko
For many years, Beria served as head of the NKVD, Stalin's feared secret police that carried out the horrific purges of the 1930s, sending countless politicians, writers, scientists, peasants and commoners to prison cells, torture chambers and early tombs. As Nikita Khrushchev reflected in his memoirs: “Everyone lived in fear then. Everyone expected that at any moment in the middle of the night there would be a knock on the door and that the knock on the door would end fatally.” In June 1937, Beria made a speech that certainly supports Khrushchev's analysis of the time: “Let our enemies know that anyone who tries to raise a hand against the will of our people, against the will of the party of Lenin and Stalin, will be mercilessly crushed and destroyed.” To say that Beria lived by these words would be an understatement.
Even before this time, in the early 1920s, Beria had spearheaded the suppression of a Georgian nationalist uprising, after which up to 10,000 people were executed in what was later described as "Bolshevik ruthlessness". He was the driving force behind the expansion of the vast network of more than 500 forced labor camps known as the infamous "Gulags". It is said that they once held up to five million prisoners. In the words of historian and former prisoner Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko: “The gulags existed before Beria, but he was the one who built them on a large scale. He industrialized the Gulag system. Human lives were of no value to him.”
Stalin himself had an amused understanding of Beria's cold and amoral nature - during one of the major conferences of World War II with the rest of the Allies, the dictator even introduced President Roosevelt to Beria as "our Heavenly One." Which wasn't far from the truth, given Beria's blood-spattered resume and talent for deadly logistics.
During the war, Beria remained an active figure in implementing Stalin's iron will towards the people. It also saw him commit one of the worst atrocities in a conflict filled with them. Today it is often forgotten that it was not only Hitler who invaded Poland in September 1939. Stalin, emboldened by his non-aggression pact with Germany, did the same just weeks later, sending in his troops from the east. Poland was suddenly in the grip of two tyrannies.
The Russian armed forces proved just as brutal and ruthless as the Nazis. Thousands of Polish troops were rounded up and held in camps, nervously awaiting news of their fate. Few could have foreseen what would come next: total annihilation at the hands of their Russian conquerors. Known as the Katyn massacre because one of the large burial pits in the Katyn forest was eventually discovered, this mass murder of Polish prisoners of war in 1940 was orchestrated directly by Beria, who sent Stalin a memo indicating that the prisoners were a threat represented the new Soviet regime in Poland and should therefore be executed. 22,000 soldiers, doctors, priests and others were killed.
The USSR claimed that the Nazis committed the act and continued to deny responsibility for the event until 1990, when it finally officially recognized and condemned the NKVD's commission of the murders, as well as the Soviet government's subsequent cover-up. As historian Benjamin B. Fischer put it, “The Katyn Forest massacre was a criminal act of historic proportions and enduring political repercussions.” And Beria was the man who made it possible. Ye Himmler, indeed.
The first page of Beria's announcement (overwritten by Stalin and several other officials) to kill about 15,000 Polish officers and about 10,000 other intellectuals in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere in the Soviet Union
The Demise of the Devil
In 1941, Beria conducted another purge, this time against the Red Army. Over 500 NKVD agents and 30,000 Red Army officers were executed. To put 30,000 in context, that's three out of five marshals and fourteen out of sixteen army commanders.
The Red Army commanders in chief had an expression they had to be purged which read: "Will have coffee with Beria".
Beria was visibly thrilled when Stalin, revered by the Soviet Union as some kind of fearsome god, died of a brain hemorrhage in March 1953.
According to Khrushchev's own writings, Beria "spit hatred" and "taunted" Stalin while the tyrant slowly died from his sudden illness. And when Stalin finally died, Beria's joy was shockingly clear to everyone. The race for power had started, and Stalin's ex-subordinates are now engaged in a deadly battle for the top spot.
“BERIA WAS MORE RELATIVE, PRACTITIONER IN CRAZY AND KEY, NAUGHTY AND MORE SENSE THAN MY FATHER. IN ONE WORD HE WAS A STRONGER CHARACTER.” Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva
Beria seemed in a perfect position — his ally, a now-forgotten figure named Georgy Malenkov, took over as supreme leader, and Beria's own smut dossier on his rivals, collected during his years as head of the secret police, meant he could sure to keep others under his thumb. But it shouldn't be. Malenkov was a weak ruler who was quickly sidelined by Khrushchev - the unlikely outsider who somehow managed to dramatically thwart Beria's plans.
As the commonly accepted story goes, during a seemingly ordinary meeting in June 1953, Khrushchev abruptly began accusing Beria of being a traitor to the Soviet Union and even a British spy. Soon the other officers - Beria's own colleagues - got involved, and the surreal revolt ended when soldiers rushed in to arrest him. As one report tells us, Beria was shocked and scared by this ambush, and with good reason.
At Beria's trial in 1953, it was revealed that he had committed numerous rapes during the years he was NKVD chief.Simon Montefioreconcludes that the information “reveals asexual predatorwho used his power to indulge in obsessive depravity". After his death, charges of rape andsexual abusewere denied by people close to Beria, including his wife Nina and son Sergo.
According to the testimony of Colonel Rafael Semyonovich Sarkisov and Colonel Sardion Nikolaevich Nadaraia - two of Beria's bodyguards - Beria was often driven around Moscow in his limousine on warm nights during the war. He alerted young women that he wanted to be taken to his dacha, where wine and a feast awaited them. After the meal, Beria took the women to his soundproof office and raped them.
His bodyguards reported that one of their duties was to give each victim a bouquet of flowers as they left the home. Accepting it implied the sex had been consensual; Refusal would mean arrest. Sarkisov reported that after a woman rejected Beria's advances and ran out of his office, Sarkisov mistakenly gave her the flowers anyway. The enraged Beria declared: "Well, it's not a bouquet, it's a wreath! May it rot on your grave!" The NKVD arrested the woman the next day.
Sarkisov and Nadaraia's testimony was partially corroborated by Edward Ellis Smith, an American who served at the US Embassy in Moscow after the war. According to historiansAmy Ritter, “Smith noted that Beria's antics were common knowledge among embassy employees because his house was on the same street as an American residence, and those who lived there saw girls being taken to Beria's house in a limousine late at night ."
Women also submitted to Beria's sexual advances in exchange for the promise of freedom for imprisoned relatives. In one case, Beria took offTatiana Okunevskaya, a well-known Soviet actress, under the pretense of getting her to perform for the Politburo. Instead, he took her to his dacha, where he offered to free her father and grandmother from prison if she complied. Then he raped her and told her: "Scream or not, it doesn't matter". In fact, Beria knew that Okunevskaya's relatives had been executed months earlier. Okunevskaya was arrested shortly afterwards and sentenced to solitary confinement in the Gulag, which she survived.
Stalin and other high-ranking officials began to distrust Beria. In one case, when Stalin learned that his then teenage daughter Svetlana was alone in his house with Beria, he called her and asked her to leave immediately. When Beria complimented Alexander Poskrebyshev's daughter on her beauty, Poskrebyshev quickly pulled her aside and instructed, "Never take an elevator from Beria." After becoming interested in Voroshilov's daughter-in-law during a party at their summer dacha, Beria tailed her car all the way back to the Kremlin, startling Voroshilov's wife.
Beria with Svetlana, Stalin's daughter on her knee. Stalin is in the background.
Before and during the war, Beria instructed Sarkisov to keep a list of the names and phone numbers of the women he had sex with. Eventually he ordered Sarkisov to destroy the list as a security risk, but Sarkisov kept a secret copy. As Beria's fall from power began, Sarkisov passed the list to Viktor Abakumov, former war leader of SMERSH and now head of the MGB - the successor to the NKVD. Abakumov was already aggressively building a case against Beria. Stalin, who also tried to undermine Beria, was delighted with the detailed records that Sarkisov kept and demanded: "Send me everything that asshole writes down!"
In 2003, the Russian government confirmed Sarkisov's handwritten list of Beria's victims, which reportedly included hundreds of names. The names of the victims were also made public in 2003.
Evidence indicates that Beria murdered some of these women as well. In 1993, construction workers installing street lamps discovered human bones near Beria's Moscow villa (now the Tunisian Embassy). Skull, pelvis and leg bones were found. In 1998, while working on the water pipes in the garden of the same villa, the skeletal remains of five young women were discovered. In 2011, while digging a trench in central Moscow, construction workers uncovered a mass grave near the same apartment building containing a pile of human bones, including two children's skulls covered in lime or chlorine. The lack of items and the condition of the remains indicate that these bodies were buried naked. According to Martin Sixsmith in a BBC documentary, "Beria spent his nights having teenagers kidnapped off the streets and brought here to be raped. Those who resisted were strangled and buried in his wife's rose garden." Vladimir Zharov, head of the department of forensic medicine at Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry and then head of the criminal forensic bureau, said there was a torture chamber in the basement of Beria's villa and there was probably an underground passage to burial sites.
The Tunisian Embassy and Beria's former home. Several bodies of women and children were dug up in the basement.
Furthermore, an American report from 1952 quoted a former Muscovite who "had learned from one of Beria's mistresses that it was Beria's habit to order various women to become intimate with him and that he threatened them with imprisonment if they refused".
He was imprisoned and eventually tried in December 1953 for a series of heinous crimes including treason and terrorism, with his role in the purges being highlighted. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, and - if the memories of his executioner are to be believed - he did not face his fate bravely.
His executioner's wife later told the media that just before he was shot, Beria "begged for mercy and got on his knees." The executioner had answered bluntly: "In all that you have done, so abominable, mean and vile, can you not find enough courage in yourself to accept your punishment in silence?"
The evidence tells us that Beria was a monster. But this was a time of monsters, and most of Beria's peers also engaged in all sorts of vicious violence. What was most intriguing about Beria was the strange, paradoxical push he was willing to make for a more liberal Russia. Stalin's most notorious servant, if he could have taken power, could have been a peacemaker and reformer like Gorbachev would have been in the 1980s.
That meant he could be outrageously brutal, but it also meant he could look coldly at the facts and take the right steps without worrying about the state's abstract ideology. It is said that if Beria had been born in the United States, he would have been a brilliant businessman. After all, this was the man who earned the respect of the greatest Russian scientists during the Soviet project to build an atomic bomb. Russian physicist Yuly Khariton, who played an important role in nuclear research, highly appreciated Beria's organizational skills and abilities. Many years later he wrote: “Beria quickly encouraged all work on the project with the necessary range and dynamism. This man, who embodied evil in the modern history of the country, possessed at the same time tremendous strength and efficiency ... It was impossible not to admit intellect, willpower and determination, he was a first-class manager who could finish any job .”
Beria was also fed up with East Germany, saying, "It's not even a real state, but one that's being kept alive only by Soviet troops." As his colleague Molotov later recalled, "a stable Germany was good enough for him ... I was in favor of not enforcing socialist policies, while Beria was in favor of not supporting socialism at all.”
This means that if Beria had become leader, there would not have been a Berlin Wall. He also expressed an interest in granting greater political freedom to Soviet satellite republics such as Lithuania and Latvia, which might have eased the rift between Western Europe and the Eastern bloc.
Beria also appreciated the huge financial gains that could come from a lasting relationship with the United States. As pragmatist as he was, he probably would have eased tensions with the West to boost the Soviet economy. Far from escalating tensions under Khrushchev - an escalation that would have the world in suspense during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam - which was essentially a "proxy war" between the US and the Soviet Union - may have been averted.
Beria's pragmatic, analytical mind could very well have brought the Cold War to an early end had he come to power. Instead, he got his just desserts while begging for mercy in front of an executioner's gun, and only his heinous crimes are remembered.